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Postscript to 'The Arab Spring in the Autumn of capital'

12/11/2012 - 03:24

Whereas for a long time western observers mainly viewed Arabs as savages to be reined in, an incredible euphoria has spread ever since Mubarak was toppled: the young student, fighting for freedom and democracy, replaced the image of the hate-filled Islamist. But just for a while; a justifiable fear of chaos has taken over since. The Islamists' electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia are the least of the west's worries; it could come to terms with them – after all, they do follow a stringent pro-market course and have promised to maintain law and order with a little welfare and lots of religious this and that. As long as the new rulers do not go too far with their discrimination of women, thereby getting European human rights commissions in a pickle, or choke off tourism with oppressive religious laws such as the prohibition of alcohol, the west is totally fine with democratically elected Islamists. Stability is still the top priority, but it appears unreachable ever since the dictators were toppled: the superfluous are just too numerous, workers' hunger for a better life is just too great. The Economist's concerns about strikes getting out of hand, which it lists as one of the reasons for the economic collapse in Tunisia and Egypt, already contain some nostalgia for the times when these countries were ruled with the iron fist: “workers feel able at last to vent their frustration after years during which they feared repression. Owners report that in many places employees demand more pay and the replacement of managers who have supposed ties to the old regime. 'When a strike takes place they have no united leadership, so you’re dealing with 60 people tugging at your jacket asking for this and that. And when you’ve made concessions and you think you’ve resolved it, it all begins again after a couple of months,' says one owner.”

Tunisia's economy is in decline. Tourism is in shambles, the mining of phosphate for export in the Gafsa region is suffering from endless strikes and unrest, foreign investors are leaving the country. The poor regions in the interior are seeing general strikes, in Tunis there are sit-ins in front of the constitutional assembly. The demand for jobs is always a key issue; the unemployed academic proletariat is organizing around it as the ›Union des diplomés chômeurs‹ (UDC) and picking quarrels with the state at demonstrations; the ›Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail‹ (UGTT), tolerated under the old regime, has renewed itself and is now the Islamist-dominated government's number one enemy, although social struggles generally take place beyond the confines of fixed organizations.
Strikes in the private sector generally face the problem of mass unemployment on the one hand and the threat of offshoring on the other. The case of a German subcontractor in the auto industry summarily closing down a factory in the Spring because wildcat strikes got out of hand is exemplary of this; the workers' ringleader was fired and production continued. The proletarianized have had greater success in putting pressure on the state. The fact that the Tunisian government promised to create 25,000 public sector jobs this year even though it is already headed for a budget crisis as a result of its growing deficit – and even though the public sector is already considered “bloated” - is perceived as an alarm signal.

Against this backdrop conflicts between workers and rulers are escalating. President Morcef Marzouki, who used to be a human rights activist, called the endless strikes “national suicide” accusing workers of “stabbing the country in the back”; an Ennahda lawmaker recently illustrated the class character of Islamism with a call for striking workers to be nailed to the cross. After attacks on union offices in April during a strike by municipal sanitation workers, the UGTT called for the government's removal, as it suspected the governing Islamists of being behind these attacks. Generally, the union has been the most important bastion of secularism as its defenders have been able to do little on a political level.

Nevertheless, the ongoing culture war between Islamists and secularists does not run entirely along class lines. It is stoked mainly by Salafists who, like in Egypt, crept out of their holes in numbers that exceeded expectations once the dictator was overthrown: they have gone on the offensive with militant attempts to enforce the wearing of the niqab and gender segragation at Manouba University, the proclamation of a “Caliphate” in Sedjenane, appearances by Egyptian and Saudi preachers calling for female genital mutilation, and attacks on theatre festivals, art exhibitions, and shops that sell alcohol. Sometimes, the government fights back, using the Islamists' actions as a welcome pretext for general repression (for example, the government banned all demonstrations on Avenue Bourgiba, the symbol of the Tunisian uprising, after Salafist riots, but rebellious youths ignored this ban with aplomb) much like the old regime used to. In June, the most severe confrontations between Salafists and the government since Ben-Ali's fall took place and led to both union offices and police stations being burnt down; further conflict appears inevitable. On the other hand, parts of the state apparatus are also contributing to the Islamization. Two atheist bloggers being sentenced to seven years in prison for publishing images of the prophet is just the most drastic example of this.

We still do not believe that north Africa is heading for conditions like those in Iran and that the Turkish AKP is the more likely role model for the Islamists in power; for example, Ennahda decided not to inscribe sharia as a source of law in the constitution. It has become clear, however, that the Tunisian state Islamists, much like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, are split into a modern, moderate and a rabidly fundamentalist faction and that there could certainly be setbacks, for women's rights for example. This culture war will hardly be decided by the secular middle class; the question will be whether the issues at stake in this war will be raised in class struggles or whether the most desperate parts of the proletariat will play their role in this attempt to hold together a class society in transition to chaos through an authoritarian regime that alleviates unemployment by pushing women out of public life, causes class contradictions to vanish in an imagined community of the faithful and sanctifies the earthly squalor of a proletarian existence with surahs from the Quran.

The situation in Egypt is similar. It does, however, differ in that parts of the old regime, namely the military council, are still in power, sometimes allying with the Muslim Brotherhood, sometimes locking horns with it and suspending democratization at will. The election spectacle has thus become an obvious farce the populace is increasingly disinterested in. The regime cunningly implemented a strategy of tension, hoping that the fear of instability will trump the desire for freedom and for the end of despotic rule. The best example for this is the massacring of the fans of the Cairo football club Al-Ahly in the stadium of Port Said that cost at least 74 people their lives in February and injured thousands more. It stands to reason that the attack was at the very least tolerated by the military in order to be able step in as the party of order and it is highly doubtful that the ordeal was merely the result of an escalation of a conflict between football fans. The massacre took place exactly one year after the horse and camel-mounted attack on the occupied Tahrir Square during which Al-Ahly's ultras – like in many other quarrels with the state – played a significant role; therefore, it may very well have been an act of revenge.
Nevertheless, an end of social conflict is not in sight. In November, a demonstration in Cairo against repression culminated in an uprising against the military council that lasted for several weeks and involved, above all, the urban poor. Every day there are reports of classic strikes, demonstrations, hunger strikes, blockades of ports and highways directed against awful working conditions and social misery. As numerous and diverse the protagonists may be – they range from steel workers, women factory workers in the textile industry, and farm workers to teachers and physicians - the struggles still lack social explosivity. The call by over fifty oppositional groups for a general strike in February went mostly unheard. Except for a few small actions, it only really reached the universities; in workplaces, it was not widely received, perhaps, partly, for fear of it being used by groups calling for the strike that had previously opposed strikes out of “concern for Egypt's well-being”.

The social eruptions coincide with the economic situation becoming increasingly dire with no recovery in sight. Budget funds are running out and the last currency reserves are starting to vanish. The country is still receiving foreign aid and credit for the development of its infrastructure, including new power plants and rail lines. As capital's situation has become even more autumnal, with one national economy after another on the other Mediterranean shore going to pieces, it appears doubtful that these programmes along with land sales to Egyptian expats, which are currently being planned, will stimulate the economy in a sustainable fashion. In all likelihood, only an IMF loan will save Egypt from economic collapse this year, but it will come with the usual medicine that will further destabilize the social situation.

Meanwhile, Libya is succumbing to a chaos of armed rackets, tribal leaders and other separatists. The NATO forces' intervention might have saved the rebels and civilians from massacres by the regime's troops and the civil war might otherwise have cost far more than 30,000 people their lives. It is certain, however, that the transformation of a rebellion into a military conflict has never served social emancipation very well. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were mostly driven by an unruly youth with back up from massive strikes in ports, mines, and factories. The Libyan youth, just barely armed and with unarmored vehicles, showed an incredible willingness to make sacrifices and take risks as well, but, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, they were led by old men, including tribal lords and clan chiefs opposed to Gaddafi as well as armed Islamist gangs. Although there are reports of activities by Benghazi's youth - for example, in grassroots assemblies, though certainly with limited influence, as well as in the fiercely contested cultural domain – power relations were impacted to a smaller extent than it appears to have been the case in Tunisia and in Egypt.

Western governments' military operations aimed for little more than securing the oil and gas reserves, keeping the shield against the sub-Saharan superfluous masses in place, and maintaining a presence in an unstable region. An open struggle between the various Libyan groups for the distribution of the oil rent has now erupted. For decades, the national government has only been held together by a combination of vicious repression and nepotism; it seems unlikely that the re-balancing of power between the various clans will succeed, particularly since the oil-rich region of Cyrenaica in the eastern part of the country proclaimed itself an autonomous region and the country splitting up is no longer out of the question. Libya's economic future will depend on the new rulers' ability to avert the country's collapse and to invest the oil rent in the development of new economic sectors. The chances of this succeeding look bleak, not just because of the global economic crisis. The new government will find it hard to force the country's working class, which is used to being given handouts with benefits from the oil rent, to take up less attractive jobs without it fighting back; especially as late-comers onto the global market usually have to depend on offering extremely cheap labour power.

In the original text we were unable to make sense of the Syrian civil war: it is dominated by the interests of rivaling regional and world powers to such an extent that analyzing it would not have been possible in that text. Here, we will leave it at a short remark: the recent history of Syria, from the state socialist ambitions of the Baath Party from 1963 on up to the economic reforms of the past decade, has given rise to the same peculiar kind of amalgamation of an authoritarian state and “neoliberalism” that we have come to know from Tunisia and Egypt, and this has led to the oppositional forces being rather incongruous: they unite Islamists and minorities as well as the left, “which is highly critical of the deep inequalities in Syrian society as well as the steps taken by Bashar Al-Assad to gradually open the market”, and “secular-capitalists, largely composed of western-educated individuals, who view the socialist elements in Assad’s regime as the reasons behind Syria’s current societal problems. They strongly believe in increased economic liberalization.” (Majid Rafizadeh, ‘Assad’s future and Syria’s opposition groups’, Yale Journal of International Affairs, March/April 2012, pp.113-114) Syria has been hit by the same social crisis as north Africa. Almost half of the population is under the age of 15; every year, 250,000 to 300,000 people enter the labour market, but the traditionally important public sector has frozen hiring for years.

Even a couple of years ago a German thinktank remarked that “the politically most dangerous” problem in Syria was the “growth of the poverty belts around the major Syrian cities. […] Syrian families arrive there on a daily basis unable to sustain their livelihood in the countryside.” (Germany Trade and Invest) Cuts to state subsidies for food, electricity, and gasoline have done their part to make proletarian life increasingly unbearable. The fact that the uprising was started by teenagers in Daraa, one of the country's poorest regions, is symptomatic. Even bourgeois analyses recognize that “the majority of people protesting in the streets today […] come from the Syrian working classes and suffer from widespread unemployment, poverty, and corruption”. (Rafizadeh, p.113) For now, the almost unfulfillable proletarian demands have been pushed aside by the militarization of the conflict; due to the fragmentation of the class along ethnic and religious lines deepened by the civil war, it may even be too optimistic to expect that they will come back to the fore later.

Friends of the Classless Society
Berlin, June 2012